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Let your very bones unhinge and scatter
loosened over fields, from any height at all
Remember in the old days when the TV signal would go out and you’d end up with “snow” on the screen and that scratchy white noise? That’s the visual and the sound I use to describe the sensory experience of my online life. It’s up front of my head, just above my eyes, a low-level static that’s always there. After a short time, I don’t even notice it. But when I go offline completely, I sure notice the absolute and blissful silence of its absence.
Having spent a pair of nights at a no-cell-service cabin last week, I’m struck anew by how much I’d like to reduce this noise. It’s not easy. Like so many others, I am online for work, for socializing, for entertainment, for information, for writing. When I say “online” I do mean the internet but also devices in general, those glowing things we like to shove in our own faces. The last time I went to the eye doctor he said, “Well, your right eye is worse than your left, but at the moment it’s blurry because it’s really dry. Do you look at a computer at work?” Yes, apparently we don’t blink when we are screen-ing. I had to go to the drug store and pick up some special eye drops to counteract this problem.
I like to talk about how I don’t have a TV or watch one on a different screen – and I really don’t – but I do spend plenty of time on screens. Every Sunday my weekly screen report pops up uninvited and I’m always dismayed to see the numbers. But then, 80% of my work in building online courses in Indigenous languages is on a computer. My ability to work from home requires me to be using one. When you add in all the other screen time for side gigs, reading an e-book, writing this newsletter, it’s probably worse than a TV in some ways: the TV’s passive approach drives me crazy, but all the interacting I do via texting, work chats, emails, social media posts and responses makes it both more engaging and worse for my brain health.
Have you read Stolen Focus by Johann Hari? I’m in the middle of it. This book talks about how we humans are fucking up our own ability to do everything from sleeping to enjoying ourselves to paying attention to anything at all, due to all of the stuff coming at us at all times. Since I’ve been writing this paragraph, I’ve responded to two texts from my sister, read an email alert, and located the link for the book to put in here. I’ve had to re-read the paragraph twice to remember where I was. All of that interruption is internet- and device-based. I’m so accustomed to living this way, I don’t even notice it. But I should.
Let me tell you about the cabin I just visited. Located way down the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, it’s one of many Forest Service cabins for rent in my area, and is excessively difficult to secure.A friend is very attached to this cabin, and when she was able to nab it for a midweek getaway, she invited me to go along. This one has electricity, which many of them lack, and that makes cooking easier. It’s located right next to the river and far back from any sort of cell coverage. We drove past an elk herd, a flock of bighorn sheep, a pair of sandhill cranes, and several marmots on our way in and out.
The last time I unhooked myself from cell coverage for this long was last summer over July 4 weekend when I went to a cabin in Idaho for two nights by myself. It turns out that leaving in the middle of the week, no access available, is even more profound than going when everyone else is vacationing too. It feels more deliberate, more impactful. But no matter when you go offline for a couple of days, it creates a deep shift in experience.
Nothing is immediate.
Nothing is pressing.
Time slows down.
Everything in front of you becomes interesting.
The static evaporates.
The static evaporates, replaced by attention in the moment to the river, morning birds,the way early light plays over the eastern ridge and tickles the pines before descending to the snow-edged water. The chickadees making a nest in a tree cavity – carving and tap-tap-tapping out the right size and shape for a space. How my one hip hurts a little from a night on the plastic-covered foam mattress.
This space of quiet, of no interruption, is ideal for reflection. It is a space for friendship, and for love. It floods the heart and mind with intention and silence, which gently push out the remaining noise, giving birth to a renewed sense of what in this world is meaningful, and what I want to have more of. And the static…it fades away.
When we are surrounded by wildlife and the wilderness, a condition that is relatively easy to achieve in Montana, we retreat toward our natural state of being, one without blue-light screens and the constant crush of information. I am reminded of an Annie Dillard essay I used to teach called “Living Like Weasels."This essay describes the way a weasel exists, within his purpose and only that: "a weasel lives as he's meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity."
Humans need this life too, more than we need information, more than we need electricity, more than we need money. Dillard reminds us that we can find our single necessity and let it carry us back to a simpler life, the essence of our humanity.
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you're going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.
I have also developed sciatica and a lower back problem from sitting so much at work, something I never did when I was a teacher.
There’s a whole six-month reserve-ahead thing and I have a trick but I’m not telling it to you because like so many other things in Montana these days, there are too many people trying to rent these and that is making everything suck more.
My newest sound ID is a dark-eyed junco!
An animal whose animal family was hilariously called “murder tubes” by the instructor of a tracking class I took this winter. “Think of [weasels, ferrets, otters, ermines] as Pringles cans with teeth,” he said.